The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio Foundation will file suit in Federal District Court in Cleveland tomorrow, in a case growing out of an extraordinary and flagrant violation of the Establishment Clause, the portion of the First Amendment which creates a wall of separation between church and state. In May 2000, an entire shift of Parma Heights firefighters were forced to attend church services while on duty, or face disciplinary action for insubordination.

The incident arose after safety forces received an invitation to attend a “Civic Appreciation Service” held on a Sunday morning by the Parma Heights Baptist Church. Shift Commander Brian Higginbotham was told to instruct men on the Sunday shift to bring their dress uniforms so that they could attend the service. When Lieutenant Higginbotham informed Fire Chief Bryan Sloan that several of the men found the instruction to attend church objectionable, he was told that attendance was mandatory, and a direct order. Failure to follow a direct order from the Chief is considered insubordination. The entire shift subsequently attended a service which many found offensive to their spiritual sensibilities.

The firefighters themselves, some of whom are Catholic and some of whom are not religious, object to having been ordered to attend religious services as part of their official responsibilities, noted Cleveland Attorney Susan Scheutzow, who will be handling the case on behalf of the ACLU. “In addition to the constitutional violation, real public safety concerns arose when, during the height of the church service, these firefighters were forced to take an emergency call barely audible over the organ and choir,” Scheutzow added.

The case represents a textbook violation of the First Amendment rights of public employees, noted ACLU of Ohio Legal Director Raymond Vasvari. “The government can no more order its employees to attend church than it tell you or me where and when we should pray,” Vasvari said in a statement released today. “The decision of whether and how to worship is intensely private, and in America no government official, including the Fire Chief, has any business telling anyone which church to attend.”